Here’s what to do about it.
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Do you sometimes feel like your life is messed up and you don’t know why? Do you find yourself worrying all the time and can’t explain it? Do you feel like there is more to your life and don’t understand why you can’t take the first step?
We’ve all been there at times. We know what we have to do and we think about it all day long, yet right before bed, nothing has progressed. There was going to be that one moment of courage where all the energy builds and it’s released through a single decision or conversation. Yet it doesn’t happen.
Most of my life has been spent as a serial overthinker in disguise. I thought way too long about being an entrepreneur, studying sound engineering, quitting finance, becoming a people leader and posting my thoughts online for the whole world to see.
Overthinker’s like me fall into three categories:
- Those who overthink problems
- Those who overthink solutions
- Those who overthink both
The first group of thinkers are always worrying about problems and trying to predict the outcome of everything in their life.
The second group of thinkers are always trying to come up with solutions to problems that don’t exist. They are always coming up with new solutions even when nobody asks for one or the problem statement is non-existent.
The third group of thinkers are a unique group of people like me who tend to over-optimize both solutions to problems that don’t exist, and problems that are not actually problems (often opportunities covered in camouflage).
The problem with overthinking every damn thing
You might think it is no big deal to overthink. “What harm can it do?” you say. There are many problems with overthinking that may not seem obvious.
Ever wondered why you are tired at the end of the day? Maybe you forgot to eat your kale salad and scull your green smoothie before yoga. Or maybe you are exhausted from overthinking.
Thinking takes a lot of brainpower. There are studies that suggest playing chess (sounds relaxing) can burn just as many calories as playing certain sports.
Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress in primates at Stanford University, says
“A chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament, three times what an average person consumes in a day.”
Imagine what overthinking can do. You might be exhausted from overthinking, not a lack of sleep or vitamins and minerals.
You can be unkind to yourself
Some forms of overthinking involve replaying events of the day or scenarios you participated in and blaming yourself for the outcome. You think about that job interview over and over and without realizing it, blame yourself for the outcome — not once, again and again as you continue to overthink it.
If you overthink for long enough and hack apart your self-worth too, you’ll end up hating yourself. When this happened to podcaster Tim Ferriss, these destructive thoughts led him to suicidal fantasies and reading books on how to end his life.
Always be kind to yourself and notice when your thoughts are going from being negative to blaming yourself for everything.
Lack of sleep
Last night I couldn’t sleep. I was overthinking a work situation and it led me to lie in bed awake. Eventually, after two hours, I got up, sent the email that led to the overthinking, and went back to bed. After sending the email, I slept like a baby. There was nothing more to overthink.
Overthinking can keep us awake and stop us from resting. Then we wake up the next day having not got enough sleep and operating on 2% battery life. The decisions we make in a day like that are terrible, even horrendous.
Settle overthinking before bed. Make peace with your thoughts or get the monkey off your back and write down, communicate with that person, or stop putting off the task you know you must do. Losing sleep due to overthinking is not worth it. And you are worth it.
People breaking your rules
Another common area of overthinking occurs when you become obsessed with a person who has broken your rule for how one should live their life — or worse, how to interact with your fragile ego.
“Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often” — Mae West
The easy way to get over this form of overthinking is to have fewer rules. You might have a rule that dudes wearing pink shirts is unacceptable. Get over it.
You might believe people shouldn’t eat meat. Well, they can if they want and you can’t stop them. Move on.
You might have a rule that says people shouldn’t talk on phones while in quiet places like libraries.
Guess what? People are going to do whatever they want with their phone and you can’t stop em. They will drive with their phone, walk with their phone (directly into you, too), talk loudly on their phone, text while listening to you speak publicly for the first time, and even look at their phone while in a job interview with you.
Drop the rules for how people should live their life and you’ll find living yours is much easier. And you’ll stop this form of overthinking too.
The black hole of “what if” questions
There is always going to be uncertainty. The balance between uncertainty and certainty is what keeps life interesting and everybody has a different balance.
I recently watched the documentary “Free Solo” about the journey of Alex Honnold and his climb up the 900-meter wall of El Capitan’s vertical rock face without any ropes. It was quite simple: if he fell off or made one wrong step, he would fall to his death and his girlfriend would miss him dearly forever.
The consequences were dire and many climbers before Alex died doing similar climbs without ropes or safety equipment. For Alex, his balance between uncertainty and certainty was skewed heavily towards uncertainty. He’d rather die from uncertainty and falling off a cliff than stay at home in a warm blanket and watch Netflix.
“What if?” questions can drive us bonkers and make us overthink. You can’t predict or plan for every possible outcome. The cure for this version of overthinking is to roll with the punches and embrace uncertainty.
Learn to love not knowing what is going to happen and taking a few risks here and there (maybe not scaling a 900-meter wall without ropes) so you can experience life rather than fear it through overthinking.
Simple solutions to overthinking
We can keep talking about the challenges or we can get to the solutions. In the spirit of this article and its intent, let’s quit overthinking the problems.
1. Make a decision.
Often we overthink because we’re delaying making a decision. One way to end overthinking related to choices is to cut off from all the possibilities and make a decision.
You’ll never know if a decision is going to be 100% right, but even if you’re wrong, you’ll learn and that’s more powerful than overthinking.
The cure for Overthinking is this: messy, imperfect, terrifying action. Action when you’re not sure how it turns out, or even if it’s a good idea. A decision and going with your gut — Deb Knobelman
2. Quit tinkering with everything.
Once you make a decision, quit the need to tinker. You bought the juicer to make healthy cold-pressed juices. Now allow yourself the time to use it and see if it helps you be healthier rather than endlessly looking for better juicers and combinations of fruits and veggies. You got it. Now juice it.
They want to keep tinkering and optimizing comes from the hidden need to seek perfection, which doesn’t exist. Outcomes are subjective.
There is always going to be some sugar papa that reckons they can make a better juice than you and that’s okay — yours is just fine.
3. Stick with one thing.
Whenever I encounter a writer wanting advice from me, I’m on the lookout for overthinking. 95.8% of the time, these writers that ask for my advice haven’t stuck with their writing habit for long enough. If they sat down and wrote every week for 5–10 years, they’d probably be Ryan Holiday.
If you find yourself overthinking, look at how much time you’ve spent in the game. Have you spent enough time doing one thing or are you trying to pivot too often, unnecessarily?
4. Experiment with a reframe.
If you find yourself overthinking a problem in your life, reframe it. What does that mean in simple terms? Take the problem and change the words to reflect a positive outcome.
Problem: “My job sucks.”
Reframe: “There is a better job out there for me and I’m going to find it!”
While none of us are ever cured 100% from overthinking, we can get better at dealing with the negative effects that are caused by it.
Whenever you find yourself overthinking, try making decisions that are final and don’t involve more tinkering, stick with one goal in your life for longer than you normally would, and try the most powerful hack of all: reframing your problems into solutions.
Overthinking less will give you reduced stress levels, better energy, and more time to enjoy life and be present.